Saturday, September 3, 2016

Summer recap

dunes, clouds, trees...up in Michigan

I’ve been up in Michigan again this summer, spending a lot of time with my family, as well as getting out in the woods and fly fishing on my favorite lakes and streams. I’ve also been getting some work done.

I published a piece on careerism in college at Public Books—it’s part of a short book I’m working on about liberal arts education. This year I am going to volunteer at the small public school I graduated from in northern Michigan, offering guidance and advice to juniors and seniors who are researching college options. Since I graduated from high school, I’ve had experiences at four quite different institutions around the country—as a student and as an instructor—and I hope I can help some students in their searches for a good fit. I hope to learn about what high school students think about college, and see how this accords (or not) with my sense of liberal arts education in the early twenty-first century. If the experience is interesting, I’ll write about it—maybe it will even become a part of the book.

I wrote a review of Don DeLillo’s novel Zero K for 3:AM Magazine.

I wrote a piece for Inside Higher Ed on how scholars can use Twitter.

I revised a book chapter for a collection called Sweet Spots: Interstitial New Orleans. The book should be out sometime next year from the University Press of Mississippi, and my chapter is about Louis Armstrong International Airport as a specially liminal space.

I wrote an article for a transportation-themed issue of ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and Environment. My contribution is, not surprisingly, on air travel—but I’m moving in new directions that come out of my current book-in-progress, Airportness: The Nature of Flight.

I’m making good headway on Airportness and plan to deliver the final manuscript in December.  There’s still a lot to do, but I am at the point where I can visualize it in my mind—I can see the shape of the whole book, and see how the pieces have to fit together. It’s a fun if also daunting part of the book assembly project: moving blocks of writing around, creating transitions, experimenting with formal flourishes and other structural details, and so on.

I’ll present a piece from Airportness at the Western Literature Association conference in Big Sky, Montana, later this month. My paper is called “Airportness in the West: Fame, Fantasy, Frontier.” I'm on a panel called Dispatches from the Post-West.

Meanwhile I’ve been reframing my “Up in Michigan” book project, and I have focused it on broader issues of ‘place’ and the problems and possibilities of landscape ecology in the age of the Anthropocene. I’ve honed a fresh version of the proposal and hope to finish the book during the second half of my sabbatical year (so, January through next summer). Reading Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk prompted me to think creatively about how I can indulge in nature writing while also critiquing it from the inside, as it were.

Lit Hub revealed a bunch of new book covers and titles signed for our series Object Lessons. We’re about to enter an intense period of serious manuscript editing, as we prepare to release a mega-batch of books in the series in late 2017. If only I could have a bunch of my wonderful Loyola students up here in Michigan, to help me with the series! (Luckily, I have a couple dedicated students working with me from afar.)

I’m heading now into sabbatical, for real. It is very odd to be feeling the sun shift to the south up here in Michigan…usually by this point we are back in the sweltering heat of New Orleans, settling into our autumn rhythms there. It’s strange to not be in the classroom. I don’t miss all the various meetings and never-ending budget crises, but do I miss my colleagues and my students. Yet here we are in the north country, and just last night it got very cool. Wind in the pines, a kind of wind I haven't felt in a long time. The bracken fern have all turned gold, on the hillsides. It’s very dark now in the mornings, when I get up to write.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Airport Battle

Last week I followed one of those frequently insane suggestions on Amazon for things I might be interested in, based on my browsing history. And, I’ll admit, this one was immediately intriguing: it said Lego Airport Battle. The full description was Super Hero Airport Battle, and as I inspected this set I was at turns baffled, turned off, and utterly delighted.

The set is apparently based on a scene from the recent blockbuster Captain America: Civil War, which features a tumultuous battle on the tarmac.

Think about what the Lego set does with this scene. All the objects and operations of the airport are distilled to the bare minimum: a Tug and baggage cart (replete with spilling suitcases), some illuminated wands for the (absent) ramp worker, barricades with no-entry signs, and an air traffic control tower. Some cryptic containers, too. All else is implied, and the scene is given over to the Marvel super heroes who are wreaking havoc on the non-place. On the Lego packaging, the tarmac is busted and the baggage cart is tipped over. In the movie, the floor-to-ceiling windows get smashed, a car park is demolished, and explosions rock the terminal (among other acts of destruction).

This Lego set and the cinematic scene it is based on got me wondering: why stage attacks at airports, whether for terror purposes or entertainment? I decided to write about this for The Atlantic.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Review of The End of Airports

Nice brief review of The End of Airports in the Times Literary Supplement:

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Back Up in Michigan

a beaver swims in the distance, across one of my favorite lakes on a still morning

I'm back up in Michigan, this time for a full year! Sabbatical—I never thought it would feel so good.

I've always thrived on the synergy between teaching and writing, but I now understand the great gift of sabbatical, to take a step back from teaching—hopefully to reassess, rethink, and reimagine life in the classroom. And also to truly focus on writing. During the school year I tend to write in undisciplined bursts in the middle of the night or whenever I can grab a few minutes to jot down a sentence. I'm looking forward to sitting down in the daytime and really stretching out into my writing.

I'm working on three books right now, and they stop and start in unexpected ways. I'm trying to let myself follow the whims and explosions of thought around each of these projects. I pick them up and put them down as ideas occur to me, as research forays present themselves.

The first book I am going to finish is Airportness. This book is turning out to be very fun to write—I'm taking a more structured approach to the topic than my previous airport books did, and this structure is pushing me in new directions. I'm also revisiting a lot of material that I wasn't able to include in my first two books, and in many cases the time lag is turning out to be beneficial—things just get weirder and weirder when it comes to air travel, and some things that seemed prescient or insightful a few years ago are even more so, now.

Once Airportness is done, I plan to turn to my Michigan book, a strange book about place and eco-criticism—it keeps changing form in my mind and on the page, shifting from one thing to another. I've been thoroughly enjoying Helen Macdonald's book H is for Hawk, as well as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's new book Stone. Both of these books are helping me think about how to write a different kind of 'nature' book.

Then I'm also working on a short book about liberal arts—I'm calling it "a quiet manifesto." Like David Foster Wallace sitting in an airport coffee shop writing about his cruise ship experience after seven days in the Caribbean Sea, I'm sitting up in the woods writing about my seven years teaching in a liberal arts context at a small university in New Orleans. (The analogy breaks down, at this point.)

Other than my own writing projects, we've got some thrilling new Object Lessons books in the works. More on those soon, but I just want to say here how gratifying this series has been to work on, with such great support from Haaris Naqvi and the entire Bloomsbury team, and my unswerving co-editor Ian Bogost. We have four wonderful new titles in the series coming out next month: Hair, Bread, Questionnaire, and Password. (Also, Ian's new book comes out in the fall, and it's so good!)

Finally, Mark Yakich and I are excited to see our edited collection of essays Airplane Reading hit the shelves next month. If you are looking for some good summer reading, this book is it.

I'll try to update this blog more frequently, now that I have more time for disciplined writing habits to form. But, we'll see.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Introducing Kara Thompson (& Environmental Cultures)

This week I had the pleasure of hosting my great friend Kara Thompson at Loyola. Kara and I were at UC Davis together as graduate students, and we've been trying to coordinate a visit to one of our campuses or the other for several years—and it finally worked out. The timing ended up being perfect in many ways. Kara visited my classes, and I was so pleased with how my students engaged Kara's work (and I was delighted that Kara managed to assign the perfect reading with which to wrap up the semester, Mel Y. Chen's "Toxic Animacies, Inanimate Affections"). Later in the day Kara gave a wonderful public talk that wove together threads from Prince, Jurassic Park, diagrams of hydraulic fracturing, Fredric Jameson, and Walt Whitman's poem "I Sing the Body Electric"—among other rich visual and cultural texts. We had a good turnout (especially considering it was so late in the semester), comprised in part of many of our terrific Environment Program students, who were a vibrant audience for Kara's presentation.

A couple years ago I started posting the introductions I write for various visitors' talks, because I realized that our written introductions for such events often end up in the trash—but I actually enjoy writing these things, and I want to preserve them somewhere (like here). So once again, here is my introduction to Kara's scintillating talk at Loyola, "Fracking and the Art of Subtext."


Just yesterday I watched a video introduction by eco-critic Richard Kerridge for a new series of books with the theme of "Environmental Cultures." The scope of the series was astonishing and thrilling—books in the series could be about practically anything so long as the authors could make smart connections to matters of environment, ecology, or nature. So this series might include animal studies, posthumanism, feminist ecocriticism, cultural geography, disaster theory, new materialisms, queer ecology, nature writing unbound...there would seem to be no limit.

As I say, this is exciting: once we loosen our definition of "nature," or realize, rather, that there's no outside of it, anything becomes a subject, or an object of serious inquiry. Environmental studies goes anywhere, with anything. But this can be daunting, too—or just plain bonkers. Imagine sitting inside the airport to practice "environmental studies"! When you say that something is anything, where to begin (or end)? How does one demarcate a project, establish an archive, conduct experiments, interpret results, formulate a theory—any of these things, when ecology is understood to be such an endlessly seeping, leaking, expanding field? One tentative answer: you have to do it very carefully, and with keen attention to detail, contradiction, and slippage.

And this is where Kara Thompson's work comes in.

Kara Thompson, assistant professor of English and American Studies at the College of William & Mary, works on the edge—or at the intersection, or overlap—of disciplinary thought. Bringing cutting edge critical theory to bear on tense questions of borders, territory, sexuality, national identity, and indigeneity, Kara's research routinely unsettles what we might think of as set in stone. Indeed, in Kara's thinking even "rocks" become points of fascination and are thereby unsettled from their resting positions as inanimate objects.

But once the land itself becomes so open to interpretation—as in fact we know it is, from the most mundane property dispute to the most heated national border debates—then what to we do about the things that would seem to grow organically from the land, whether they be so-called invasive plants, or human settlements? How do citizens become naturalized? What is a foreigner, or a foreign object? Are attractions natural, are repellents cultural? Have these sorts of frameworks outlasted their use (and maybe for good reason)?

Everything is in play, nothing can be taken for granted. We are in the weeds, right here, across the street from Audubon Park, sitting in this nice neat quiet and climate controlled room. Welcome to "environmental cultures" writ large. This is no mere academic exercise—this is real life, fecund and brimming. Here we have to read closely and carefully, and go slowly—and we need a good guide. Kara Thompson's writing takes us into the utterly familiar, which may then turn out to be bizarrely unfamiliar. But the wager is that such interpretive adventures will make us see—and act more justly in relation to, while entangled with—the rich complexities of this world, our present place in space.

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Airportness: The Nature of Flight

I am very happy to announce that I just signed a contract for my next book, which will be published by Bloomsbury in fall 2017. The book is called Airportness. Here's a short description of what this book is about: 
The term “airportness” has been used to describe the architectural feel of modern terminals and concourses. In his third book about airports, Christopher Schaberg argues that airportness is not just a way of thinking about design, but also the feelings and sensations related to everyday patterns of flight. It is seeing planes in the sky, recognizing vague roars from above, and interpreting the routines of air travel—from sliding doors, to jet bridge, to lavatory. Airportness: The Nature of Flight departs from where The End of Airports left off, speculating about the future of flight and contemplating aircraft as they appear in a variety of contexts. Airportness explores how planes have become surprisingly natural objects: experienced as unquestionable set pieces, props, and passages…airportness is the rumbling background noise and ambient awareness of our lingering jet age.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


Earlier this month, sitting on the tarmac on a airplane in Detroit, in the middle of what would become a three-hour runway delay, which would then turn into a twelve-hour flight cancellation and rebooking protrusion, I pulled up the map on my iPhone to show my son Julien where we were, exactly, in line for de-icing. As the satellite view focused, I watched the airliners and jet bridges blur, liquid like, as they settled into proper resolution. For a moment it resembled a Wayne Thiebaud cityscape, the way the recognizable forms of the airport veered and smeared, hyperreal. I quickly captured the image mid-focus, which you can see above. My new book The End of Airports puzzles over these sorts of strange, spontaneous comportments: when we are in the airport on the brink of flight; tethered to the ground while visualizing ourselves soaring above the earth; or sitting in jetliners at cruising altitude feeling nowhere at all, not exactly....

Some big news, related to my new book: Nathan Heller's ruminative article on flight in this week's New Yorker, "Air Head," cites The End of Airports fairly substantially. I was delightfully surprised, and honored, to see my work on airports discussed so thoughtfully throughout Heller's piece.

My special issue of Criticism on "critical air studies" is now out; this issue features an array of scholarly inquiries into the culture of flight, and I'm very happy with how it came together. You can read the beginning of my introduction to the issue here, and here's the cover of the issue, which riffs on airport carpets (but not PDX). 

And if you are craving some lighter reading on the culture of flight, our book Airplane Reading is almost out! The book should be published in May: 54 wonderful contributions by a wide range of writers and air travelers. This book was a blast to put together with my great friend and colleague Mark Yakich. Look at the cover, a fantastic collaboration between Nancy Bernardo and the design team at Zero Books:

A couple other things while I'm in overview mode: I wrote a piece about the Millennium Falcon in the new Star Wars movie "The Force Awakens" for the Los Angeles Review of Books' Philosophical Salon, and I wrote a review of Maggie Nelson's book The Argonauts, for 3:AM Magazine

Finally, last but not least, Object Lessons continues to bloom, with fifteen books now published and many many more in the pipeline. You can hear Alison Kinney talk about her new book Hood, and me talk about the series in general, on a Jefferson Public Radio show we did together the other day. LARB also did a long interview with me & Ian about the series, and then later they ran a generous omnibus review of the first ten books in the series. I wrote a bit on the Bloomsbury Literary Studies blog about teaching with the series at Loyola, an experience I'm eager to recreate in Fall 2017, when I return from my sabbatical. Object Lessons continues to be a thrilling adventure in editing and publishing—with no end in sight. 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Books as objects in the world

My colleague and great friend Mark Yakich's new book comes out this month; it's called Poetry: A Survivor's Guide and it is wonderful:

One small thing I love about it is that it includes a few of Mark's drawings; another thing I admire about this book is how it dares to be personal, how it tells a story about living with poetry as much as it gives practical instructions for surviving the experience of poetry (reading it, writing it).

Mark and I have collaborated on numerous projects over the past nearly seven years, and something we've always seen eye to eye on is the act of writing books as a matter of making objects in the world. While much of what goes on in the college classroom or in the solitary act of writing can be seen as abstruse or disconnected from life, there is nothing like seeing a book plop onto a table and then seeing how it moves around the world, to reassure that all this thinking, teaching, and writing amounts to something, or at least some thing.

If I haven't been writing much here on this blog, it's in part because find myself in a strange gelatinous realm where I am working on four different book projects that are staggered and weirdly related, but all requiring different modes of fiddling, writing, framing, and grant-applying.

The first one is the book Mark and I have been working on for several years, a collection called Airplane Reading. Last week Mark and I drove out to the New Orleans Lakefront Airport and sat in an empty cafe and wrote the introduction to this book; tomorrow we're going to go back out to the airport and finalize the order of pieces and submit the manuscript our press for the project, Zero Books. We're also going back and forth with the ever inspiring artist and designer Nancy Bernardo, who is fine tuning a zinger of a piece for the cover of this book. If everything stays on track, Airplane Reading will be published this coming spring. Getting away from the daily grind on our campus has helped us wrangle the project and get it into shape. It's also an incredible old airport terminal, perfect for lingering and reflection:

Next, I received a fellowship from Loyola for this coming summer to finish another project, a short book I'm calling "Liberal Arts at Work." This book is part manifesto, and part...well, "self-study." (I heard that phrase in a committee meeting yesterday.) The book also brushes up against the works of David Foster Wallace throughout, and I'm still figuring out how to highlight that aspect.

My big ongoing book project is the thing I have been calling (with increasing looseness) "Up in Michigan." It is a book about place, and what it means to write about place. This book has morphed in unexpected ways over the past few months, and I'm looking forward to really focusing on it—and finishing it—next year, when I'm on sabbatical. But in the meantime it is involving a lot of zooming out and trying to get a sense of it as a thing I can describe in graspable chunks—among other reasons, for the sake of a significant grant I am in the midst of applying for.

Finally, I realized over the past month or so that one more book on air travel has been congealing in my brain. This new one is called "The Nature of Flight," and it takes on more directly some of the eco-critical angles I've touched on in my other two books about airports.

Book projects keep me going. They connect me to others in the process of writing, and they result in things I can give to students, friends, and family. They're just books, I don't mean to make them a bigger deal than they are, but they are still real things that take on their own existence, objects in the world.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Return To Your Seat

I wrote most of the following piece a couple years ago at the urging of an editor for Travel + Leisure magazine; perhaps not surprisingly, it was a bit too abject for their tastes. Luckily I had a chance to revisit this material for my new mini Object Lesson up the Atlantic, "Consider the Lavatory."

Have you ever found yourself in the airplane lavatory, inspecting your visage in the hazy mirror, staged in the dim light, wondering how long you’ve been standing there, how much longer you can get away with it before another passenger or a flight attendant knocks on the door? It’s a little pentagon of privacy in the otherwise public oval of the airplane. But you can't stay for long.

From the Middle English lavatorie and the Medieval Latin lavatorium, both from the Latin lavare (to wash)—how do our modern airplane bathrooms cling to this ancient appellation? There is something weirdly timeless about this space: once you go in and shut the stiff yet flimsy plastic door, everything else in the airplane vanishes, muffled in some near distance. It is a place full of mystery and suspense.

There's the small sink with faucet of uncertain water pressure—is it going to shoot out with surprising force, or just dribble onto your fingers? There are the myriad signs, minimalist icons implying warnings and instructing things like DO NOT OPEN and DEPOSIT WASTE HERE. Red stripes of caution slash through simple humanoid forms. It is a tight space, over-brimming with communications. In the lavatory when the captain makes an announcement, for once it may sound like the captain is speaking to you alone. Occasionally you'll be in there when the plane starts shaking and a calm icon illuminates with a ding, a placid command: return to your seat.

Then there is the small molded toilet with its sketchy seat, the hinged and bouncing metal flap at the bottom of the bowl (sometimes laden with soggy toilet paper or worse), and the vortex of “blue juice” sucking into the void. Do you sit or try to stay propped up, awkwardly hovering over the bowl? How clean is this place, anyway? In fact, airlines are usually pretty good at cleaning lavatories regularly and thoroughly (I know—I used to have this job). As germ-filled and claustrophobic as the lavatory may feel when you are in it, it’s also likely that it is one of the cleanest public bathrooms you’ll ever use.

Once I entered a lavatory and was surprised to see the tiny sink filled with what at first looked like trash. When I looked closer, it was actually a rather careful arrangement of sanitizing napkins—the sink was inoperable, so a clever flight attendant had placed a bouquet of packaged hand wipes in the sink, and taped a note to the mirror instructing the passengers to use these instead of washing their hands. The lavatory became a place for creative problem solving. Such initiative, such industry!

Down the aisle, passengers sit and stare at the red cartoon that denotes OCCUPIED. Who is in there, and why are they taking so long? But these two experiences of time are so different, inside and outside the lav. Outside, in a cramped seat, time drags on and it can be hard to focus on things. But in the lavatory time stands still, and everything is in focus. It’s a small, usually windowless room where everything pops into distinction, and yet where everything becomes strange, too. Where exactly are you, here? “Lavatory”—the very name bespeaks some sort of untimely place, some space out of joint.  What rhymes with lavatory? A priori

So why do we retain this odd sounding word? Does it supply a bit more decorum on that most abject space visited during the already uncomfortable experience of flight? Perhaps the name makes the place sound more regal than its austere reality. If so, the lavatory may function as a metonymy for the whole experience of commercial flight: it’s made to sound better, or at least different, than it really is.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Writing: sometimes it works

Writing: sometimes it works, especially when others are involved

Part of my job is to write. It's a weird part of the job because it's rather incalculable and very unpredictable—when it will happen, how it will turn out, whether it will end up in the dustbin of oblivion or be published somewhere (and then read or not, appreciated or spurned).

One of my students asked me the other day how I get from 'idea' to 'thing' when it comes to writing. Part of my answer involved collaboration: I would never get things done (much less started) without nudges, feedback, pushes, and pulls from the friends I've made and colleagues I've been lucky to have over the years. That's how the Brad Pitt book got written, and that's how Object Lessons was launched.

More recently, my great friend and colleague Mark Yakich and I co-wrote a short piece called "How Should a Professor Be?" This started off as a kind of tongue-in-cheek thought experiment, but as we wrote we gradually realized we had something to say that might actually be useful—for our own self-clarification, if nothing else. We were happy when an editor at Inside Higher Ed liked it and offered to publish it. (Lest we forget the key collaborations that happen between editors and writers....) Mark and I are also in the finishing stages of our edited collection of airplane reading nonfiction, which will be published sometime this coming spring.

Also recently, I wrote an essay about liberal arts education for Public Books that was prompted by conversations I've been having with my dean and a few colleagues about the mission of our college—I wouldn't have written it without having had multiple discussions over lunch about what we're doing here at Loyola, and why. And I wouldn't have sent it to Public Books without the encouragement from my editor there to send him another piece, after my essay about "critical thinking" garnered some interest over the summer.

Meanwhile, I'm currently working on a new piece of writing, with pokes and prods from my mate Ian Bogost, as savvy a line-editor as they come.

A somewhat tepid review of my new book The End of Airports was published by Publishers Weekly, but I am fortunate enough to have a supremely kind and astute editor at Bloomsbury, Haaris Naqvi, who talked me through what this meant and why not to worry. Then a few hours later the actual books arrived in the mail, and I'm staring at them, and they're beautiful, and I'm feeling like it works, thanks to lots of other people, sometimes, it all works, this wild thing called writing.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Summer Reading

reading a book set in Michigan while in Michigan

This is a partial summer reading list, which appeared in slightly different form on Roy Christopher's always excellent Summer Reading post, and with one addition:

Alphonso Lingis’s book Trust (University of Minnesota Press, 2004) is a fascinating blend of travel writing, philosophy, and what keen David Foster Wallace scholars might identify as a prose experiment in 'the new sincerity'. It is the kind of book that makes one want to write, and also to observe—and how to balance these impulses becomes a dynamic puzzle, a puzzle the book both solves while also flinging all the pieces at the reader.
I was won over by Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf, 2015), a book that makes the reader question the very premises of the book while persevering and following through to its satisfying conclusion. It is a book that accepts a certain constraint, and stays true to it—and the result is at turns utterly galling and totally admirable. In the end, Manguso throws down a gauntlet for any would-be diarist or journal keeper (really, any ‘author’!): it is a standard of unsettledness, a zombie aspiration for real-time writing.
Joanna Walsh’s forthcoming Hotel (Bloomsbury, 2015) in the Object Lessons series is a daring act of textual lingering, a vivid mashup of object-oriented thinking and psychoanalytic inquiry. When I first read Walsh’s manuscript I was stunned by its intensity and attentiveness—her book opens up whole new fields of thought and imagination for how a seemingly non-discrete ‘object’ might be accounted for, assembled, and written into. I could go on and on about each of the six Object Lessons books coming out this September, but, moving on…
Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven (Penguin, 2015) is such a wonderful post-apocalyptic novel that it immediately replaced Cormac McCarthy's The Road on my 20th-century American Fiction syllabus (we end with books in/about the present moment). One of the things critical things that Mandel's novel has that McCarthy forgot to include is his ruined landscape airport.
Finally, Margret Grebowicz’s excellent The National Park to Come (Stanford Briefs, 2015) blew me away. It is a deft articulation and extension of current eco-theory, breaking new ground, as it were, while recognizing the very fraught terms of ‘breaking’, ‘ground’, and other such naturalized metaphors. The book is framed by a personal narrative, which at once complicates and gives passionate nuance to Grebowicz’s project.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Ends of Things

film equipment for The End of the Tour at the Muskegon Airport in Michigan

I wrote about the film The End of the Tour for 3:AM Magazine.

I can't tell if the current hype around David Foster Wallace—spurred on by the film and countless reviews and paratextual essays—is a watershed moment, or the end of something.

"The End of Something" is a weird little breakup story by Hemingway that takes place in northern Michigan. As I work on my new book about Michigan, I keep bumping into Hemingway's descriptions of the region, and I'm trying to use this proximity in unexpected ways.

The End of Airports is at the press! I'm eager to hold this book, as it really does feel like the end of an era, the end of my writing about airports (okay, probably not).

Meanwhile, the next six Object Lessons books are about to be published!

I'm very happy with how this particular batch of books turned out, and also excited to teach a class at Loyola this coming semester that considers the intellectual background of the series as well as some of the books themselves. We'll start with Jane Bennett's Vibrant Matter and Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, and go from there...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Evaluated, unplugged

tenkara up in Michigan

I've got a new piece up at Public Books, about the phrase "critical thinking." It's something of a continuation of a post here from a few months prior, and might be part of a nascent short book on liberal arts. 

But mostly this summer I've been working on my book-in-progress called Up in Michigan, which is a bioregional meditation on the Anthropocene—grounded but limited, geographically (if paradoxically) constrained. I'm trying to enact some "situated theory," as Doug Armato referred to it when I described it to him when we were chatting at MLA last january. 

Now with full acknowledgement that I’m “blogging” here, and that the above photo was taken with an iPhone, I wanted to write something about how nice it has been to be relatively unplugged this summer.

During the frantic pace of the school year, life can seem like an unending sprint of checking emails (and responding when necessary), participating in online surveys and committee elections, going to planning and department meetings, eking out rare minutes and occasional hours to write, preparing to teach classes, actually teaching classes, and doing it all over again the next week. Particularly in these hard times for higher education, when the basic premise of what we do* is under scrutiny, when administration turns the screws on any seeming inefficiency or incalculable part of the process, and when Friday afternoons become dreaded, recurring doomsdays for decision-announcing emails—the stresses of the job mount, and morale plummets. 

Summer is thus a welcome respite, and once again I'm very fortunate to be able to be up in Michigan, overspilling my parents' small home with my boisterous family assemblage in tow

Up here I've been revisiting my favorite lakes (and exploring some new ones) throughout the national park, and taking walks in the woods and in the dunes along the lakeshore. My son and I hiked to a massive beaver lodge, and another day we saw a bobcat loping along a riverbank. 

Inspired by a conversation with two of my favorite people last summer, I have been experimenting with tenkara fly fishing—basically a very long limber pole with a line and a fly on the end, and no reel. It's ultra-simple fishing, with minimal equipment—this is what makes it great. It forces you to focus on a small radius of water, aquatic vegetation patterns, and subtle movements. Tenkara was designed and perfected long ago in Japan for mountain stream fishing, and I would love to try it back in Montana where I really learned to trout fish, but for now I've adapted it to marshy lake fishing, for the bass and bluegill that swim in the clear waters of the glacially scraped lakes around my little corner of Michigan. 

I've been reading books that are giving me ideas and offering forms for my current project, and I've been writing (or at least mentally sketching) new stuff about beach combing, canoeing, memory, forest ecology, and bird sounds. But mostly I'd say this summer has been something of a productively negative experience, in the sense that I've been enjoying not being on email, not being on this computer (despite being on it now as I write this). And especially not being glued to my phone (it doesn't get service around here most of the time, which helps; there's wifi, but talk about glacial). I haven't been on twitter as much (I've degenerated into a tweeting parent), and I haven't really missed it. 

Speaking of unplugging, over the past year my university transitioned to online course evaluations, which is great in many respects: one no longer has to take up twenty minutes of precious class time late in the semester to hand out the cold forms, read the instructions verbatim, and then awkwardly leave the room as students glance around in panic. No, instead the students just fill out the course evaluations on their own time, from their computers or iPhones I guess, whenever and wherever they want to. This seems like a good idea, from a standpoint of instructional efficiency as well as in the service of saving vast amounts of paper and labor-time scanning the damn things. I've heard some of my colleagues express wariness, though, as it means that the student can decide exactly when to do an evaluation—for instance, in the moments after you've handed back that "D" paper replete with stringent comments. Watch out, prof.

My course evaluations tend to be fairly positive most of the time. Students generally respond well to my admittedly clumsy oscillations between being laid back and then maybe too intense when we're in the thick of discussions or close reading. There are always a couple students in each class who I can tell loathe my style and resent my attitudes. I try to be welcoming and encouraging to a wide range of students, and to be open to various styles of learning and participating...but finally, it's just me, idiosyncratic weird me, doing my thing year after year, class after class, across assorted literary topics, different books, new students, teaching reading, writing, and, okay, even maybe critical thinking. And most of the time, it works out for all of us.

This semester, though, there was one comment from a student that really stung:
"It seemed like he wasn't really into teaching.
This was on a course evaluation for my David Foster Wallace seminar, so it especially surprised me, as this is a class I offer entirely because of student interest in the late writer, and the course tends to be pretty self-selecting in terms of student motivation. Our conversations are usually spontaneous and passionate as the students and I grapple and tangle with Wallace's challenging, risky, and sometimes galling writing. This class is a joy to teach, because it is driven by sincere excitement (and at times healthy skepticism) concerning this iconic writer qua celebrity—and I get to facilitate and construct conceptual frameworks around our discussions. At best, it's probably one of those undergraduate courses that flirts with the forum & focus of a graduate seminar—and these sorts of classes can be highlights for students and professors alike.

But I will admit that this past semester I was tired by the time the DFW course commenced. On Tuesdays and Thursdays I taught two 75-minute courses back-to-back, at 3:30pm and at 4:55pm. (So, barely enough time between classes to go to the bathroom and/or get a sip of water from the drinking fountain.) The first class was an upper level critical theory course called "Interpretive Approaches"—another course I love, as it is sort of my bread and butter subject matter, and we work our way swiftly from Marx & Freud through Derrida, Barthes, and Kristeva and on to more contemporary thinkers such as Donna Haraway, Judith Butler, Giorgio Agamben, Michael Warner, and Lauren Berlant (among many others). This particular class was fantastic, with all the students engaged and enthusiastic about the material—no easy feat to pull off, given various authors' notoriously frustrating writing styles and general world-upending bents. 

Tuesdays and Thursdays also to tend to get completely jammed with meetings, too, before I teach. So suffice it to say that my student's comment hit me hardest in part because they saw through to something true: by 4:55pm I really wasn't into teaching, at least not after a day chock full of (often pointless or just redundant) meetings, and then my first (exhausting, in a good way) class. I will admit that I rather drifted through some of the DFW classes—even though many of our sessions were still vibrant with excellent conversation, students pushing their understandings of the roles of fiction (and art more broadly), the definition and limits of nonfiction, the author-function in Wallace, etc.

By the end of the semester, yes, I was ready for this break. I'll be recharged and keen to teach my three classes come late August. I'm scheduled to teach a class I've never taught before, an introduction to creative writing (who, me?), as well as a new class tangentially about my series Object Lessons, and my reliably fun course 20th-century American Fiction. It'll be a busy semester, but I'm looking forward to it. 

But for now, here I am, up in Michigan. Evaluated, unplugged.

*From the Loyola website, & this is very much in line with how—and why—I teach: Jesuit education is a call to human excellence, to the fullest possible development of all human qualities. This implies a rigor and academic excellence that challenges the student to develop all of his or her talents to the fullest. It is a call to critical thinking and disciplined studies, a call to develop the whole person, head and heart, intellect and feelings.